Over time, there have been many, many wrestlers that have made the transition to Mixed Martial Arts with varying degrees of success.
Some elite wrestlers struggle to put together the myriad martial arts and remain wrestlers first, like Olympic silver medalist Sara McMann (12-5), while some develop enough striking skills to become perennial contenders like Phil Davis (22-5, 1 NC), Derek Brunson (21-7), and Colby Covington (16-2).
Some, however, develop elite striking and grappling skills and become all-time greats, like Henry Cejudo (16-2) and Jon Jones (26-1, 1 NC).
The path that Pennsylvania State University’s three-time national champion and All-American, Bo Nickal (0-0), takes is up to him, but the future looks bright.
The Under-23 World champion is already training at the prestigious American Top Team with the likes of UFC BMF Jorge Masvidal (35-14), UFC bantamweight contender Pedro Munhoz (18-5), undefeated Bellator featherweight prospect Cody Law (2-0), and his college teammate Anthony Cassar, who will also make the transition to MMA down the line.
“We’ve also just had a lot of weird situations with the quarantine and up at Penn State, they’ve been pretty hesitant with letting people work out and stuff so the facilities on campus were closed for about two months,” Nickal told James Lynch over the summer. “I went down to Coconut Creek and American Top Team and trained with Masvidal and the guys down there. It was super awesome. It was a lot of good work that I got done. I’m excited to make the transition when the time comes.”
He has already dipped his toe in the competitive jiu jitsu waters when he grappled IBJJF World and ADCC champion Gordon Ryan (142-8-3) in December of 2019.
Nickal lasted an impressive 13 minutes before being submitted in a triangle by the arguable best submission grappler alive, an impressive feat for a non-jiu jitsu competitor. True to his competitive spirit, however, Nickal told Lynch he was disappointed by his performance.
Nickal, a competitive guy, is 183-7 as a wrestler, so he didn’t take kindly to the loss, but admitted if he had another six months of jiu jitsu training, it may have been a different result.
I’m not sure that these combat jiu jitsu matches are a great indication that someone can defend practical submissions that are usually used in MMA. In this match, Ryan was constantly kicking out at Nickal’s knee, going for judo throws, and going for leg locks over the course of several minutes.
Ryan did finally get Nickal down, but Nickal kept turning and eventually got out of it. Watching this was more like watching Bret Hart try to put a sharpshooter on the Hulkster than an MMA move, outside of leg-lock king Ryan Hall.
Nickal did even the match at 2-2, but Ryan went to the ground and quickly locked in a triangle. Nickal did what most wrestlers do in that situation, picking up and slamming Ryan, but he couldn’t get out of it and tapped to the choke.
As far as his wrestling, the record and the accolades speak for themselves.
Some things are very clear from watching him wrestle. In matches, such as the 2018 Big 10 championship at 184 pounds against 2016 NCAA champ Myles Martin, Nickal answers a lot of questions in regard to his transition to MMA.
Watching that match, I saw a lot of things that make it clear that he can be a really good fighter: his transitions are outstanding, he goes from defense to offense in a split second, exactly as he talked about with Lynch; he is awesome at scrambling and getting dominant positions, something that most great wrestlers can do; and he is also really good at taking the back quickly, especially from the waist lock position.
I also wanted to talk to someone that really knows wrestling inside and out, so I reached out to Brian Carson — who covered both high school and college wrestling in Central PA and has seen plenty of Penn State and Nickal, and who have I worked with in the past.
I wanted to ask Carson if what I saw was or par with what he sees.
“That’s his thing, the scrambling,” Carson said. “He’s a funky guy. He’ll hit moves from anywhere. You watch that Martin match, you’re going, ‘What are you doing? Why are you doing this? …Oh, ok,’ and he hits the move. During his four years, he was probably the best wrestler in the scramble. He just comes up with these ways to hit moves and get out of moves. He was very, very explosive.”
Becoming a great striker and learning striking defense, is going to be the tallest task for Nickal.
“For what MMA is, he’s got to learn to punch,” Carson said. “If he gets them down on the mat, forget about it. They are not going to take him down. They aren’t going to beat him on the mat. He’s got to learn how to punch. I know college wrestlers have had a lot of success — like Phil Davis. He’s got to learn how to hit and learn submissions. I think there is going to be a learning curve.”
Training with an experienced veteran like Jorge Masvidal is definitely a key component to developing his striking, and by his words, he is picking it up fast.
“Being able to learn from [Masvidal] is crazy,” Nickal told Lynch. “The way I kind of explain it is if someone just came in the wrestling room and didn’t have any experience and tried to wrestle me, the way I would move, you can’t really see it. They would do like 12 steps, but it would be like one. That’s how it is for him with striking. For me, it would be like 12 steps. For him, it’s a split second. Just seeing all the experience he has with his stand up game, and MMA, in general, is super awesome just for me to be able to learn from a guy that has had so many professional fights and been able to travel all over the world. That’s someone I want to learn from and surround myself with.”
Most wrestlers are known for their seemingly unlimited cardio. Think of Colby Covington, often referred to as the “Cardio King,” or Georgia’s Merab Dvalishvili, who always looks like he could wrestle another five rounds.
It has been the difference in pace between striking and wrestling that has been a huge adjustment for Nickal.
“It’s definitely a different pace,” Nickal told Lynch. “Wrestling is 2-3 minute periods, typically. [Striking is] a higher intensity at a lower volume. It’s not as intense, but you’re definitely increasing the volume doing multiple five-minute rounds. I think once I figure out the pace, it will definitely help me out a lot. I pick up the techniques pretty fast, so the technical stuff isn’t too much of an issue. It’s the pace and making that adjustment. It’s so much fun. I love MMA and jiu jitsu, grappling.”
After the 2021 Olympics are over and he transitions to being a full-time MMA fighter, Nickal will surely be a sought after free agent and have plenty of offers. I believe it makes the most sense to sign with Bellator — who routinely sign high-level wrestlers with little MMA experience — or the PFL — who boast crossover-sport athletes Kayla Harrison (8-0) and Clarissa Shields (0-0) — so he can be brought along slowly and develop all the other skills to complement his elite wrestling.
I kind of liken him to someone like Tyrell Fortune (9-1) or a young Daniel Cormier (22-3), who can develop some momentum against lesser competition. If he were to sign with the UFC out of the gate, it could be a developmental deal like the one to which they signed former NFL star Greg Hardy (7-3, 2 NC).
They both have huge names and people would want to see Nickal against other big names.
I believe we will find out a lot of these answers this year, and that’s why Nickal is a prospect to watch in 2021.